restricted access John Courtney Murray, Religious Liberty, and Modernity: Part I: Inalienable Natural Rights
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John Courtney Murray, Religious Liberty, and Modernity
Part I: Inalienable Natural Rights1


Religious toleration, or the separation of church and state, appears to many to be a characteristically modern achievement, one that we owe to modern rationalist political philosophers. But many Catholic intellectuals have a different understanding of its provenance. They follow the thought of John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit theologian who, as a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, had a large hand in writing the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (hereafter DRL).2 And according to Murray, religious liberty, freedom of the conscience, and the separation of church and state are all doctrines that are fundamentally Christian in origin. With this claim Murray and his students attempt to reconcile Catholic political thought with liberal democracy. That such an attempt can be successful is doubtful. But sorting out just why this is so can provide us with a better grasp of the inherent aims of liberal democracy as a form of modern political rationalism, and so with a better grasp both of what can reasonably be expected of it and of how one might reasonably expect to improve it. More than this, it can allow [End Page 13] us to begin to see the abiding value of classical political rationalism over and against modern political rationalism.

While Murray’s influence has waxed and waned over the past fifty years, it has been waxing of late with the attempt to combat what his followers see as a version of moral relativism in the American courts. They cite the opinion of the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Belief about these matters could not define the attributes of person-hood were they formed under the compulsion of the State.”3 Those who disagree, and who make an attempt to guide public life according to standards of justice that transcend the autonomous self, are in the court’s view necessarily guilty of irrational “animosity” toward those who refuse to recognize such standards.4 Students of Murray have therefore been attempting to provide what they believe to be a more sound, more coherent understanding of our polity.5

Noting that Murray recognized as early as 1953 the growing loss or denial of the transcendent in American life, and in particular Murray’s attention to what he called the “moral confusion . . . suspended over a spiritual vacuum,”6 they hope to restore an understanding of those truths that, according to Murray, we must hold if our civic life is to be healthy and morally sound. They do so, moreover, with the confident understanding, inspired by Murray, that the best understanding of constitutional democracy is to be found in the Thomistic tradition of the Catholic Church. At the heart of their understanding of Thomism is Murray’s twofold claim that, first, “political and social life has a natural moral purpose, namely, to ordain what the common good, the exigencies of a humanly virtuous life in common demand”; and second, that “the human person is free in society when all his inalienable rights are juridically guaranteed immunity from inhibition and provided with the due conditions of their exercise.”7 Murray, a champion of religious liberty and the rights of the individual, was also a champion of natural law and the obligations it imposes upon human beings in light of the common good. Hence his thought is, as [End Page 14] his growing number of admirers believe, able to guide us out of the present crisis in American public life. They regard Murray’s thought as liberal but teleological.

There is much to admire in both Murray’s thought and the work of those who have begun elaborating upon that thought in the face of our present difficulties. Nonetheless, there are practical and theoretical difficulties that attend that endeavor, not the least of which is his attempted synthesis of natural law and inalienable natural rights, a synthesis that threatens to lead to a serious confusion on the part of Catholics and non-Catholics alike...